Between her obscenely muscular new capoeira teacher, her crush going off with a new girl in their favorite park, and trigonometry homework, Kia figures she has enough going on without some creepy ghost causing car crashes and hit-and-runs in her neighborhood. Carlos Delacruz, the half-dead half-resurrected soulcatcher for the New York Council of the Dead, would love to keep her out of it, but things don’t usually go the way he intends. From the world of Daniel José Older’s immensely popular Bone Street Rumba series.
“What song is that, man?”
I don’t move. The rumble of this ambulance’s diesel engine fills the air again, the smell of night, the park around us. If I hold still, if Victor shuts the fuck up, if nothing happens for another few seconds, maybe I can sink back in, grasp hold of that fragile thread of an echo fading into the darkness.
I rub my eyes and then retrieve the coffee cup from the dashboard. The thread is gone; my past is still a void. “It’s nothing, man. Just some song I heard.” The coffee is lukewarm but strong as hell. Reality settles in fully around me. “Stuck in my head is all. You get a job?”
Victor shakes his head, “Nah, man, go back to sleep.” The ambulance radio crackles to life, a routine announcement that seat belts save lives, and then all we hear is the diesel putt-putt-putt and occasional snores from the passenger compartment where Victor’s partner Del is laid out.
“Look,” I say, “if some shit don’t go down by four, I’m out, man.”
Victor nods. “I’m telling you, it’s been every night, C. Without fail.”
“Maybe accidents do take vacations, after all.”
“Carlos, I’ve been doing this job for twelve years and I ain’t never seen a pattern like this. You know I don’t go in for all that woo-woo shit, either. I don’t get involved in your whatever weirdo life. No offense.”
“And I ain’t never come to you ’bout some shit in all the time I known you.” He retrieves a cigarette and starts smoking it out the window.
Around us, the park glowers with late night shadows and a few scattered lights. The metal bars of a playground swing glint out of the gloom, a silhouetted pyramid against the cloudy sky. Darkened brownstones peer from behind the trees on either side. If I say anything right now, Victor will interpret it as encouragement to speak more, so I light a Malagueña and glower along with the park.
Victor lets out a menthol-laced cloud and shakes his head. “Last night, a hipster on a bike got completely destroyed by a passing garbage truck. I mean, we were picking up pieces of him blocks away. The night before it was a prisoner who broke out of the precinct over there, made it halfway across the street before the desk officer popped him, and then he got sideswiped by a motorcycle. The dude got dragged like four blocks and when we got to him his back was hamburger, Carlos. Hamburger.”
I just grunt.
“Wednesday it was the suicide, that was on the far corner of the park over there. Jumped from the roof of that brownstone and lived, man. We had to decompress him, though, he had full on tension pneumo—tubed that ass and hauled it to Bellevue. Died in surgery.”
“Damn.” I have no idea what Victor’s going on about, but all medical jargon aside, he’s right. And three apparently unrelated gory deaths in a four-block radius is the kinda thing that puts me to work. He rattles off a few more while I smoke and ponder patterns and, inevitably, the past . . .
“You’re humming again.”
“Like, while I’m talking.” Victor narrows his eyes at me as I sit up and rub my face.
“Shit, man. Sorry.”
“It’s cool. I know you’re not used to the night life. Anyway, folks’ve started calling this place Red Square on the strength of all this. And I’m just saying, seems like the kinda thing . . . you might know something about.”
Vic’s never known how to talk about me being half-dead. It’s not his fault—I’ve never come out and said it to him. But gray pallor covers me like a layer of dust and my skin is cold to the touch. My heart rate never surpasses a melancholy stroll. Plus, I deal with ghosts. In fact, I’m employed by them: The New York Council of the Dead, a sprawling, incomprehensible bureaucracy, sends me in to clean up any messy irregularity in the rigid, porous borderlines between life and death. I mean, since I’m a walking messy irregularity of life and death, I guess it makes sense that the Council’d use me as their clean-up man, but the truth is, it gets lonely.
A whiny bachata song explodes out of Victor’s belt. He curses and his belly shoves against the steering wheel as he squirms into what must be some kind of yoga pose to dig out his phone.
“Ay, shut the fuck up with that yadda-yadda horseshit,” Del hollers from the back. Del is like eight feet tall with locks down to his ass. He’s from Grenada but he got hit by a school bus in the nineties and has been speaking with a thick Russian accent ever since. When he gets worked up, his brain clicks fully over into Russian—some shit the neuroscientists of the world are still going nuts trying to figure out.
Mostly people try to be really nice to him.
“Sorry, man!” Victor yells, cradling the flip phone against his face. “Hello? . . . Hang on.” He hands me the phone. “It’s for you, man. Some chick.”
The thought wreaks havoc on my slow-ass heart for a half-second before I clobber it into submission. Of course it’s not Sasha. There are eighty million reasons for it not to be Sasha, least of which being how the fuck would she have Victor’s number and know I was with him? And why would she care? She walked out on me with no forwarding address, and now all I have is a Sasha-shaped hole in my chest.
Anyway, I killed her brother.
I have to stop disappearing from the world like this. I ignore Vic’s raised eyebrow, take the phone, and say hello into it.
“Tell your buddy if he refers to me as ‘some chick’ ever again he’ll be driving his own ass to the ER.”
“Hi, Kia.” Kia is sixteen and will probably rule the world one day. For now though, she runs my friend Baba Eddie’s botánica. Started on the register, selling Amor Sin Fin and Espanta Demonio herbal mixtures, statues of saints, and beaded necklaces. Then she started managing the books, which were a disaster, and—without bothering to ask Baba Eddie—she set up an online store and proceeded to build what appears to be a small spiritual goods empire, one she rules with an iron fist. And all as an after school job.
“Isn’t it a school night? What are you doing up at 4:00 a.m.?”
“Returning your phone call.”
“That was like eight hours ago!”
“Alright, man, I’ll talk to you later, then.”
“Wait—you know anything about the park over on Marcy?”
“Know anything about it? I know a buncha motherfuckas been gettin’ got there recently. Usedta be my stomping grounds for a while, then I moved on. Is that where you are right now, C? You might wanna not be there.”
“I’m alright. Anything else?”
“This girl Karina I know from the rec center babysits a whole boatload of little white kids at that park. You want me to ask her about it?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“Imma see her tomorrow, maybe I’ll swing through with her.”
The radio crackles and Victor picks up the mic. “Five-seven x-ray. . . Send it over.”
“Be careful out there,” Kia says.
Victor put on his seat belt and cranes his head toward the back. “Del, we got a job.”
“Morgaly vikalu, padlo!”
“It’s been like three weeks now,” a little humpty-dumpty-looking middle-aged man in a bathrobe tells us. “I been coughing and hacking but this is different.”
Del towers over the guy, arms crossed over his chest, perpetual frown deeper than usual. “You’ve been coughing for three weeks, yes?” He says it like he’s about to launch into an eighty-thousand-page dissertation about vodka and agriculture reform. “And now you decide for to call 9-1-1, why?”
“Well, tonight I coughed up something different. You want to see?”
“I really do not want to see this thing,” Del says, but little oval-shaped dude is already rummaging through a layer of used tissues and medicine vials on his coffee table.
Victor scribbles the guy’s basic information down at the kitchen table. I’m sitting across from him trying not to gape like an asshole. “Is this normal?” I whisper. “People call you for this shit?”
He peers over his dollar store reading glasses at me for a hard second, then gets back to writing.
“Here it is!” the guy exclaims cheerfully. Then he erupts into a hacking fit. He passes a plastic Tupperware container to Del, who gingerly takes it in a gloved hand and peers in. He scowls and tips it toward us just enough for me to see a tennis-ball sized clump of tangled brown hair.
“The fuck?” I say before I can stop myself.
The patient shrugs. “I know, right?”
Victor shrugs too and then both radios in the room burst into frantic, static-laced growls.
Unit with a message, please repeat your assigned number and location. Unit with a message, please re— Another desperate scramble of static and yelling cuts off the dispatcher. Victor and Del both furrow their brows and turn up their radios at the same time.
I hear the words forthwith and imminent arrest come in, and then more static. The dispatcher releases an angry tone over the airwaves and yells at the units to stop stepping over each other.
I stand up. “What is it?”
Victor shakes his head. “Sounds like they’re calling for help.”
Marcy and Greene! Marcy and Greene! the radio screams. Forthwith! We have an imminent cardiac arrest. I need medics, I need backup, we about to roll.
Victor and I lock eyes. “The park,” I say.
He nods. “Go. We gotta wrap this up.”
At full speed, I move with ease. You don’t realize my left leg drags; this cane compensates just so, the full complex machinery of me lunging forward like a wave. It took practice, believe me. But I’ve had time. It’s been more than four years since I died in some unspeakably violent way at the foot of the ornate archway at Grand Army Plaza and then woke up days later in a phantom safe house on Franklin Ave, body broken and every memory shredded. I find new life in each moment like this: the midnight brownstones breezing past me, the siren song of something foul dragging me forward. This is life, and really, anything is better than the sheer emptiness of so many lost memories.
“The streets is hungry,” a little old lady mutters when I roll up, sweat-soaked and out of breath, at the southwest corner of Von King Park. She has a rusted old cart in front of her and a head scarf tied around her wrinkled brown face. “Streets be feedin’ when they hungry.”
A bloodstain the size of a trench coat shines up from the dark concrete at me. It catches the sickly orange glow of street lamps and pulsing blue emergency lights. They’ve already decorated the spot with police tape. The ambulance must’ve screeched off just before I got there; I hear its wail receding into the night. A few feet away from the bloodstain, a motor scooter lies in heap, like someone just crinkled it up and tossed it there.
The cop nearest to me has icy blue eyes and looks young and entirely unimpressed. I ask him what happened and he just shrugs and looks away. I turn to the old lady, still standing beside me and chewing her mouth up and down like she has the mushiest piece of steak in there she don’t wanna let go of.
“One’a them Chinese delivery boys,” she responds to my unanswered question.
“What hit him?”
She nods up the block some, to where a Daily News truck idles with its hazard lights on. A guy with a baseball cap and goatee stands outside, talking on his cell phone, eyes barely holding back tears. An ugly, human-sized dent marks the side of the truck.
I shake my head. “Damn.”
“Streets is hungry,” the old lady says again.
“You see anything right before? Anything weird?”
She turns her attention from the street; those ancient cataract-fogged eyes squint up at me. “Was just a small one, eh.”
“A small . . . what?”
She flinches, eyes back on the street, far away. “Don’t play stupid now.”
“A small ghost.”
“You see it clear?”
She shakes her head. “Just fleeting, like. Came and went, came and went.” She chuckles softly. “‘He’ll be back though, eh. He’ll be back, yes.”
Karina’s right: the new Capoeira teacher is fine as hell. The dude’s not even my type; I usually go for really overweight, darkskin dudes. He sits on a folding chair facing us in the big meeting room, his muscular arms crossed over his muscular chest. There’s a shiny bruise on his left cheek, but otherwise, his face is maybe perfectly symmetrical. Like, he might be an android, and right now his left eyebrow is raised slightly, making him look just the right combination of arrogant and thoughtful. He’s got big lips and a carefully trimmed goatee. Golden brown shoulders bulge out of that sleeveless shirt in a way that’s almost profane, like, just sitting there. Being all burly and shoulderful in front of a group of teenagers seems somehow inappropriate.
And I’m here for it. We all are.
“Thank you all for coming today, kids!” Sally says. Sally’s the white lady who runs things. She’s barely taller than the new Capoeira teacher and he’s sitting down. She looks like a sack of mediocre potatoes next to his glowing golden perfection. Shit, we all do. “I’m really excited to introduce you to Rigoberto, our new Capoeira instructor.”
“What happened to Gilberto?” Devon asks.
“You scared him off with ya loud-ass farting last week,” Karina tells him.
Devon flips her off. “Shut the fuck up.”
“You guys,” Sally says. “Let’s not do this, okay? Gilberto unfortunately had an altercation in a bar the other night and won’t be able to . . .”
“Somebody faded Gil?” Devon translates helpfully. “Shit.”
Tarik jumps up. “Wait! Gil gets faded at a bar and the new homey got a shiner? Y’all ain’t seeing what I’m seeing?”
A general murmur ensues. Sally looks vexed. “Guys, it’s Rigoberto’s first day here and—”
Mikey B. raises his hand. “Rigoberto a Dominican name right?”
Rigoberto smiles. Teeth: perfect. At least four audible sighs ring out. “Actually, I am from Brazil, like your last teacher.”
“You speak Spanish, man?” someone yells.
“Actually, in Brazil we . . .”
“Dumbass, he speak Brazilian.”
“Y’all so stupid,” Karina says. “He speaks Portuguese; now how ’bout we let the man talk and stop showing off how ignorant y’all are, ’kay?”
Laughter breaks out and then people settle down and look at Rigoberto. Sally smiles a little too broadly. “I’ll just let you talk to the kids now, Rigoberto. Thank you!” She skitters out of the room.
Rigoberto stands up. Dude must be six foot three, at least. He’s perfectly proportioned—each piece fits into the next just right, arms hang just right, his loose white pants fit just right. It’s almost sickening. “Hello, guys and girls,” he says with a doofy wave. “You can call me Rigo.”
“Do we have bulge?” Karina whispers, peering over Devon’s baseball cap.
We do. “We appear to have bulge,” I report.
Karina nods. “Confirmed bulge.”
“Rigo, you married, boo?” Kelly yells out. Everybody groans. I want to punch her in the face.
Rigo chuckles. It sounds a little forced. “Today we’re going to talk about Capoeira, yes? Not Rigo’s personal life.”
“Fat chance,” Karina mutters.
“Let’s begin by seeing what we know so far, okay? Because I don’t know this other teacher, Gilberto, yes? But he may be, how do you say . . . incompetent? Why don’t we have demonstration? Which one of you is Kia?”
My heart lurches into overdrive. I suck at Capoeira. And I hate standing in front of people. And. And. And. People are snickering and turning back to stare at me. Karina shoves my shoulder. Rigo searches our faces ’til his eyes lock with mine. He smiles that eerily perfect smile and says, “Ah, you are Kia? Kia Summers?”
I nod, praying he’ll change his mind, knowing he won’t. Why would he call me by name anyway? What kind of . . .
“Go!” Karina hisses in my ear. The moment has grown long, awkward. I stand, somewhat shakily, and make my way through the group to the front.
Rigo wears altogether too much cologne. It’s something synthetic and overbearing and it makes me dizzy. “You remember how to do a basic ginga?” He asks, smiling down at me.
I shrug. “I mean, kinda.”
“The ginga is the basic step of Capoeira, yes? Everyone has their own ginga. It is as personal as a signature. Just like everyone has their own rhythm.”
“Devon doesn’t!” Karina yells.
“When you understand the ginga, when you find your own . . .”—Rigo swings one leg back and raises his forearm toward me, then switches sides, moving so smooth it’s like he’s gliding a few inches above the wood-paneled floor—“it becomes like just walking down the street! You see? Natural. Come, we do it together.” I try to mimic him, sliding my left leg back and then shifting my weight to the right. I feel like a broken mannequin.
“Clap, kids, yes? For the beat?” He lifts his hands over his head and those thick triceps glare at me. I lose my entire sense of rhythm and have to start over. “Clap, clap!” Rigo yells, breaking into a syncopated beat in time with his hovering step.
The group claps more or less in time and I work my way back into a steady ginga.
“Yes, yes, very good!” Rigo yells over the clapping. “Now what happens when I go with one of these?” He spins; one foot anchors back and the other flies up toward me. I know this part—I’m supposed to dodge-bend backward like in The Matrix and then spin into some impossible acrobatic shit and kick. I arch back and throw myself off balance, hurl sideways and catch Rigo’s sneaker in the face.
Everyone in the room yells, “Oh!” as I stumble backward. I hear Rigo mutter, “porra!” and then feel a whoosh of wind brush past. Arms wrap around me. Thick arms. Rigo somehow evaporated and reappeared behind me. Again, audible swoons erupt, not all of them from the girls.
My hands are over my eye and Rigo’s hands are on my wrists. “Let me see,” he says softly. “Let me see. I’m so sorry, Kia. Let me see what I did.”
I shake my head. I probably look like one of those deep sea monstrosities right now, the hell Imma let Brazilian Ken gape at me.
“We probably need to ice it. Can you see? Kia?”
I relent. The collective gasp is all I need to tell me what an instant freak show I’ve become. Rigo scrunches up his face. “Is not so bad, minha. Let’s get some ice, okay?”
“I’ll take her!” Karina yells.
In the rec center health room, Karina informs me that I have a boyfriend.
“Don’t be an idiot,” I say. The ice pack pulses a numbing void against my forehead. From the wall, a cartoon condom explains, with the winningest of grins, that he’s not reusable.
“I’m just saying,” Karina says. “He called that ass out by name. He was like . . .” she drops her voice to an absurd baritone and affects something like a Polish accent. “Kia Summers! Please for to come to ze front of ze el roomio.”
“You in love, girl, that’s okay. We all are. Homeboy is eight feet tall and fine as fuck. And he’s packin’. I’m just mad it’s you not me, but I support you, Kia. I got ya back, all the way. And when it come crashing down because he’s too old for you, I’ll step in on that distraught friend tip and get me some too.”
“How that even make sense? You the same age as me.”
“I’m more mature though. And I’m Jamaican, so . . .”
“What that even . . . Just be quiet, woman. You’re giving me a headache.”
“That headache is called Love. A love-ache.”
All I can do is roll my eyes, but even that hurts. “You going to the park after class?”
Karina scoffs. “It’s Saturday ain’t it? You know I got all those baby beckys to take care of.”
A bunch of the new white folks in the neighborhood linked up on some social media site and now they have regular Saturday evening dinner parties where they plot, I’m sure, how to make the perfect vegan cupcake and take over the world. Karina got the gig watching their rugrats and she usually just lets ’em loose in Von King.
“They ain’t scared by all the shit been going on there?”
“Pshaw! It’s added flavor and excitement to the urban adventure.”
“Imma come with,” I say.
Karina sits up real straight and wipes off her stupid grin. “If Renny there, I got ya back.”
I sigh. “It’s not like that, Karina. It’s cool. I’m cool.”
Rennard Deshawn White, of all the old-man-ass names for a teenage boy, is this kid I used to talk to. He’s big and black and beautiful, all those loving folds of flesh to get lost in, and he got a quiet, easy way about him like I do when Karina’s dumb ass isn’t around riling me up. We used to walk the length of the park after school just talking. I mean, he talked most of the time and I just let him; he talked about his favorite video games and his moms and his little sister and how he wanted to be an engineer and, okay, yeah, it seems pretty boring if you not in it, if you don’t give a crap about Renny, but I devoured every word and then waited in the silences for him to look over at me and then wrap around me and I could disappear into him and and and . . .
And in February he started dating Maritza Lavoe. And then they started walking the park, same path we took, same leisurely loving pace, and I sat hugging myself next to Karina while all those little white kids ran screaming around us and wondered if Maritza made him laugh more or if she listened better, if they’d made out yet and if they kissed when they had sex. Dumb shit, I know, but that’s where my off-kilter mind went and that’s where it stayed. Me and Renny didn’t even put our lips against each other’s but I felt like I could go through things with him and come out on the other side a better person. I put my headphones on and with the best King Impervious break up rhymes on the player and I walked out of Von King Park one night and haven’t been back since.
“You sure you cool?” Karina eyes my faraway look and I snap out of it, flash a smile.
“Girl, fuck Renny and his video-game-playin’ ass.”
“That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout.”
We dap and then I say, “For real, though, he still roll through there with Maritza?”
Karina shoves me and I almost fall over the desk I’m sitting on. We’re both laughing so hard we don’t notice that Sally’s standing in there doorway, arms akimbo, until she says, “Young ladies,” and then all we can do is bust out laughing again.
New York weather doesn’t give a fuck about any of us. It wants us confused and off balance and if it has to become absurdly warm after the sun sets on a brittle icy day in a brittle icy week, so be it. Folks are shedding jackets and sweaters, unraveling scarves, looking around dumbfounded and annoyed. Old people step out on their stoops and stretch muscles crimped and tight from flinching against a long hard winter.
They smile as I pass, turn to each other and wonder who gonna get it tonight and how, what unaccountable tragedy will strike which corner of the park, and why . . . They shake their old heads, jowls dangling, eyes squinting in the streetlights, and wonder.
I stand in the center of Von King Park and let the whole universe of it spiral around me. Little kids swarm the brightly lit playground in the southeast corner. Dog walkers stroll along in small clumps. In the field behind me, a baseball game wraps up. I’ll say this for the community: The recurring traumas have not deterred people’s impulse to commune. Who can resist the first night of spring? The thaw has come early, and knowing New York’s tempestuous, temptress ways, tomorrow will see another frost.
“Mass random disasters be damned, huh?” my partner Riley says, appearing next to me. The fully dead have an annoying way of creeping up on a man.
“I was just thinking the same thing.”
“The people gonna have their park.”
“Ain’t mad. It’s a beautiful night.” I’m sweating in this damn overcoat.
“Bell’s at the southwest entrance.” I nod towards the Marcy Ave gate at the far end of the field. “Posted some’a her soulcatchers at the northeast corner, the rest are scattered along the edges. You take the northwest.”
“Where the little doggy park is? Man, fuck dogs.”
“You have no soul.”
“All I am is soul, brother.”
“Imma be over at southeast. Kia got a friend who watches some kids there, gonna see if I can rustle up any information.”
“Kia as in Baba Eddie’s little botánica badass?”
“Alright, man. You worried? You look worried.”
“That’s my face, man.”
Riley shakes his head and moves out to the edge of the park with long ghostly strides.
Am I worried? No. Not worried, but a growing unease rumbles through my core. I don’t have a name for it, can’t trace its roots. It’s been there for the past couple days, I realize, unnamed and rising. I’m just getting myself together so I can ignore the unease when I see Kia sitting next to her friend on the bench. Then I see her black eye. The unease erupts into a full-blown swath of rage.
“What the fuck happened?” I say, quickening my pace as I cross the playground. “Who I gotta kill?”
Before Kia can answer, her friend is up in my face. “The fuck are you, homeboy?”
“I . . .”
“You gonna back up off my friend ’fore I—”
Kia’s hand lands on her shoulder. “Karina, it’s cool, girl. That’s Carlos, he’s my people.”
Karina glares up at me for a solid three seconds before backing off. I smile—not to seem condescending, I’m just relieved Kia has someone else around, someone her age, who will throw herself in the line of fire to protect her. I know I would.
“Karina, Carlos. Carlos, Karina.”
I nod at the girl and she appraises me with a squint and an eye roll. “What happened?” I ask, controlling my breath and the urge to incinerate something.
“It’s fine, it was an accident is all.”
Did the disaster ghost strike already? Seems there are no accidents these days . . . “Here?”
“Nah, man. At the rec center. Capoeira-related injury.”
“What is this Capoeira of which you keep speaking?” I ask.
“It’s a fighting style or a dance or both, depending on who you ask. Roots in Africa, flourished in Brazil. They came up with it during slavery when they had to disguise their combat training as dance. I suck at it.”
“She’ll be aight,” Karina puts in. “She was struck by an angel.”
Kia swats her. “Shut it.”
“A Brazilian angel.”
Kia wraps both arms around her friend from behind and covers the girl’s mouth. “Ignore her, C. What did you wanna ask about?”
“You take care of all these kids, right?” I ask over Karina’s muffled giggles.
She pulls away Kia’s hands and straightens herself. “Indeed I do.”
“Unless the Ministry of Whiteness decides to take a night off.”
I squint at her. “The Min . . .”
“Never mind, C,” Kia says. “She here every Saturday, yes.”
“You see the old guy get hit by that wheelbarrow from the construction site last weekend?”
Karina shakes her head and puts a stick of gum in her mouth. “Uh-uh.” She offers me a piece. I decline. Kia grabs one and starts chewing loudly. “I heard about it though. And the lady who ran into a city bus the next day. She lived, though, I heard. But yeah. Whole lotta disaster up in these streets, man.”
“You seen anything weird, like, around the park?”
“Besides white people jogging through Bed-Stuy after dark?” Kia says. They both fall out laughing for a minute and then collect themselves.
“Nothing really. Same ol’ usuals. Drasco and his cat parade. The cops making rounds. That’s it.”
“What about the kids?”
“You wanna ask ’em?” Karina stands and makes a pretend megaphone with her hands. “WHAT WE GON’ DO WHEN THE REVOLUTION COME?”
An eerie choir of high-pitched voices rises in the night around me. “Burn them houses and kill them sons!”
I boggle at Karina. “What the hell is that?”
Little white kids pour off the slide and swing sets. They repeat the line in unison as they make their way towards us.
Karina shrugs. “Song my grandma usedta sing. It gets their attention.”
“I don’t think . . .”
“WHAT WE GONNA DO WHEN THE CITY BURN?” Karina yells.
The kids bustle in around us. “Light them motherfuckas in they turn,” they chant.
“Karina . . . do their parents know you have them—?”
“Shit, I hope not. I’d probably get fired. I get nothing but tips and thank-yous so I’m guessing nah. I swore them all to secrecy. Right, soldiers?”
“Ashé!” comes the yelled response.
“Ashé, though?” Kia says. “You confusing these children, Karina.”
“Hell, I grew up confused, why shouldn’t they? What’d you wanna ask ’em, Carlos?”
Pale, expectant faces stare up at me. They all have big cheeks and wide eyes. “Anybody . . . notice anything . . . strange?” I ask them. I don’t really know how to talk to kids. Not living ones, anyway.
They just keep staring at me.
Karina furrows her brow and stamps one foot. “Ay, soldiers. Tell Mr. Carlos the truth.”
A pudgy hand goes up.
Karina points at the kid. “Musafa.”
“You gave them African names too?” I ask.
“Naw, their parents did that. You know how some them white parents be.”
All I can do is shake my head.
“Jimmy has fingerprints.”
“Shut up!” Another little boy yells. His blue eyes well with tears.
“It’s true!” Musafa insists.
“Jimmy,” Karina commands. “Come here, love.” The little guy waddles through the pediatric mob, sniffling back a sob. “Yes, be strong, little mister, don’t cry now. Lemme see your hands.”
He holds up both palms but there’s nothing strange—no ink, no prints to speak of.
“Musafa, what you mean Jimmy has fingerprints?”
A girl in the front with strawberry blonde pigtails and a bright pink jump suit stands up. “Not on his fingers.”
She walks up to us and lifts Jimmy’s superhero shirt. “On his body. Look.”
I crouch down to squint at the shimmering blue markings on the boy’s torso. Musafa was right: little handprints crisscross his back and sides. They’re not from dirt though . . . these are ghost prints. “Shit,” I say.
“Ooooh!” the crowd of kids hums.
“What we say about what mommy and daddy find out?” Karina says.
“Nothing,” they answer as one.
“Alright, then.” She looks down at me and I can tell she’d just been playing cool for the kids’ sake. Her eyes are wide and worried. “What . . . the hell . . . is that?” Karina whispers.
I stand up and turn because something flickers at the edges of my consciousness. My hand goes to my cane-blade as I scan the perimeters of the park. Nothing.
“Carlos?” Karina says.
“Keep the kids close,” I say. “Especially Jimmy.”
“What is it?”
At the far corner from us, a car brake screeches and someone lets out a stream of curses.
“What’s happening?” Jimmy moans.
I’m about to tell Kia to keep an eye on things when I realize she’s nowhere in sight.
“Where’s Kia?” I demand, fighting the edge out of my voice.
Karina spins around, panicked. “I don’t know . . . there!”
Kia has her back to us as she fast-walks toward a fat kid and a girl with a massive weave by the northeast corner.
“Fuck.” I hop the small fence around the playground and break into a run. An eruption of translucent fluttering bursts to life along the northern edge of Von King Park. I hear a revving engine, see a newspaper fly up into the air beneath a street lamp and start to drift down like giant falling leaves.
Rennard Deshawn White.
Dark brown like me and round, and those perfect arms, thick as my thighs with great dangling dollops of flesh. Folds I’d have sunk into on a lazy Sunday, some Sunday locked forever in my imagination, some faraway woulda-coulda type shit, as in coulda been all mine but instead, instead, instead . . .
Rennard Deshawn White, sitting serene and stupid like a beached whale on that park bench in Von King, Maritza perched on ya lap, long manicured fingers in ya fro. Fuck this.
If they’d been making out that woulda been predictable. Fine. Make out. That’s ya girl. Alright. But this . . . this uninhibited performance of domestic bliss? Unacceptable. No little teenage love affair has any business looking this much like an ol’ middle-aged couple—no way, no how. It’s a ruse. Unacceptable, and unacceptable shit gets called as such, that’s how I move. And regardless of how I move in general, this how I’m moving now: flushed forward on long strides, fists tight at my sides, face tight so they know I truly will smite down a bitch, lest they test me.
I’ll not be tested.
No plan, no words formulated to blast out upon arrival, just fire and the simple truth that this shit, this shit, this shit will not stand. Nuh. Uh.
Maritza turns first. Renny’s eyes are still closed, his head leaning back, a pleasant smile still splattered across his big, stupid, beautiful face. Her fingers stop weaving through that ’fro, face crinkles into a shrill frown.
“What happened, babe?” Renny murmurs, and it’s then, in the second before he opens his eyes, that I remember my own eyes, my newly damaged face, what a true disaster I must look like. My mouth drops open, panic rises in me, and instead of fire, nothing comes out. Air. I wonder if I can vanish before he sees me, just be a story Maritza tells and surely she’s kidding, Kia would never roll up on us like that, right? Right?
A commotion rises from the edge of the park, newspaper flutters down in the orange glow of a streetlight. I remember the disasters everyone keeps talking about and then Renny looks at me, face scrunched with concern, and opens his mouth.
The voice that says my name isn’t his, though. If Renny did speak it got run over by Carlos’ hoarse shout from behind me. I’ve never heard Carlos sound scared. The next thing he yells is “Run!” but I don’t run, I turn to look at him.
The motherfucker is crazy. Carlos Delacruz barrels full-speed toward me from across the park. I don’t know where he thinks I’m going to run to. I don’t even know what I’m running from. Then his eyes go wide at something in the air between us, something I can’t see, and he pulls a long, shiny blade out of his cane. Behind me, Maritza lets out the girliest scream I’ve ever heard. I stumble back a few steps and I’m about to run when an icy grip slides around my ankle then up along my leg and swings me around.
A thousand tiny icicles needle into my neck. Pain blurs the world around me, a dull roar and a cloudy haze. Then the haze lifts and I’m looking into two bulging, translucent eyes and then a shimmering face, its mouth stretched out into a scream, chipped, malformed teeth, buckets of gelatinous drool, an eternity of darkness down its throat. This is a child’s face, haggard and broken but still so young. Those eyes burrow into mine; I realize the ice on my neck is from its two tiny hands, crushing my windpipe.
The face takes up my whole vision—it’s pressed up so close to mine I feel the chill air around it, its stale breath—but a figure stirs in the hazy world beyond this thing. Carlos. He’s poised to strike, that blade of his raised and ready. The thing turns and I see Carlos clearly—his brow furrowed and frown uncertain.
I’m trying to figure out why he doesn’t just kill this demon-ass child mothafucka when the creature hurls into him, throwing Carlos on his ass. The sudden absence of pain is the first breath of air after drowning. I gasp, scramble a few steps, and then break into a run.
So many people have come out to the park on this warm end-of-winter night, like their collective presence can somehow ward off whatever evil’s been plaguing this place. Surely that thing, that horrible, broken-faced, icy demon child of fucking frosty death will find one of the many other folks here to attack once it’s done eating Carlos’ soul or whatever. Or maybe getting shoved will wake Carlos’ aloof ass up and he’ll take care of business finally.
Either way, I’m out.
I dip and dodge between concerned onlookers, ignoring the stares and the feeling that hasn’t left me, cross Lafayette, veering out of the way as a biker flies past and curses me out, and then cut around a corner and run hard. I don’t know where I’m going—everything inside screams away; far, far away from that hell. I pass the junk lot with its dazzling dragon mural where the old guys used to play dominoes and the bodega I used to get candy at with Karina. Start to slow as a stitch twists my gut, cross another street, and then my hands are on my knees and I’m leaning over like I’m gonna hurl. Then I do hurl, right there in the street, just watery yellow crap—bile, I guess? And I look up, back toward the park, and then I scream.
It’s just a hazy flicker in the night but there’s no mistaking it: the demon child is a block away, swimming at me in watery, uneven strides with its arms outstretched. I can’t move. A city bus passes, oblivious to the nightmare my life has suddenly become, and the whoosh of air wakes me up. One more glance—the thing launching upward into the sky, mouth stretching wide—and then I turn and run again.
My breath is still short—I don’t have much left—and immediately the sharp ache reopens beneath my ribs. Carlos is whoknowswhere and I have nothing to fight with, no idea even how, but I won’t get got running. If that little spectral fuckmonster can touch me then I can touch the hell outta it too. I whirl around, fire raging in me again, ready to die.
It’s closing on me from above, long fingernails stretched out, mouth twisted into a silent howl. My left leg shoots back and I pivot just so, twisting my body out of the way. The ghostling rushes past with a chilly gust of air, spins back around, and charges. For this perfect second, I am smooth. Born from unholy terror, this is my ginga. I don’t know how long I have before either this grace and precision abandons me or I get strangled again, so I anchor my right leg and spin-kick the little motherfucker in the face.
The air is cool and thick on my leg. The ghostling hurls backward and there’s Carlos, face creased with fury. He yanks the thing right out the sky mid-tumble and shoves it into a black burlap bag.
I’m sitting on my ass, my breath sudden, fitful gulps, and my whole body shivers. Behind Carlos, a whole slew of shiny translucent figures stand gaping at me. Carlos follows my eyes. “Oh,” he says.
I feel strangely calm. Everything slides into place. “Am I dead?”
Carlos shakes his head. “Nah. But your life will never be the same.”
A muted daybreak opens across the warehouses and fancy new high-rises around us. The East River sparkles beneath the growing dawn, still alive with the last of Manhattan’s shine.
We absorb it in silence for a few minutes, then I rake out a Malagueña and offer Kia the pack.
“No thanks, man. I want to reach voting age without my larynx rotting out.”
I shrug and light up.
“So.” Kia puts her hands in my pockets and keeps her eyes on the gray sky above the rooftops. “Turns out you’re not some crazy hallucinating guy.”
I bark a laugh. “And neither is Baba Eddie.”
“Well, I knew that. And all the glowing guys that were standing around you?”
“They’re . . . dead.”
“And the little fuckmonster that attacked me?”
I nod. “Also dead.”
“Not dead enough.”
A seagull circles in front of us, caws its complaint, and then veers off toward the bay.
“I guess I always thought the whole ancestors thing Baba Eddie always talking about was more like a metaphor, you know? Like, he puts down food for them and smokes cigars with ’em and shit, but I thought that was just like . . . you know, symbolic.”
“And you, Carlos? You’re dead too?”
She shakes her head. “Alright, man. It’s just a lot.”
“I know. And I know last night was scary. Really scary. And we’re gonna figure out what the hell is going on, Kia.”
“What . . .” She pauses. Collects herself. “What am I supposed to do now, Carlos?”
“I wish I could tell you everything’s just gonna be alright,” I say, “but that’s not a promise I can make you, Kia. You gotta live your life, but you gotta be careful. You have the Vision now, you’re gonna be seeing ghosts.”
She shudders. “Like, everywhere? Man, I can’t handle this shit. I didn’t ask for this.”
“Not everywhere, just . . . around. And I know it’s a shock at first, believe me, but you have to stay sharp. Just keep away from them. If one starts coming at you, you gotta run. I mean, most of them are harmless, really, and I don’t want you to walk around the rest of your life being afraid of the dead . . .”
“No, why would I ever do that?”
“Look, right now, it seems like something’s after you. And we got this one but we can’t be sure there ain’t another one out there looking for you.”
I crouch and unstrap the short blade from my boot. It’s sheathed in a metal holster wrapped in worn leather. I hold it out with both hands, the way Riley handed me my first blade.
“It’s a blade like mine. It kills ghosts.”
“Carlos, man . . .”
“Kia, take it. I don’t usually give things to people, especially not ghost-killing things. This is important.”
She scowls, arms crossed over her chest. “Where am I supposed to keep that thing, man? You do realize I’m black, right?”
“I . . .”
“Can’t be walking ’round Brooklyn with a dagger hanging off me just chilling like ayyy. You read the newspapers? You gonna pay for my funeral when the cops blow my ass away?”
“Kia, I— ”
“Y’all brown folks don’t get got like us, C. You might get ya ass beat for being brown, especially gray-ass brown like you. But I’m black. Ain’t no kinda ambiguous either. Unambigously black. They shoot us for having a wallet or a sandwich or just walking down the street, how Imma roll with a medieval-ass ghost killing-ass dagger?”
“You . . .”
“I need you to be up on shit like that if we gonna be friends, C. This is my life. I’d like to keep it.”
I finally stop trying to get a word in edgewise and take it in. She’s right. I hadn’t thought about it. My blade stays safely hidden away in my cane and I still get side-eyes from every cop I pass. And I’m light gray-brown. Cops been on the rampage in this city, killing with impunity, and all the victims black. Unambiguously black, as Kia said.
“You right,” I say. “It’s different for me. I hadn’t thought about it like that.”
“’Course you hadn’t.” She takes the dagger. “Imma rock with it though. I’ll figure out how to hide it.” An unruly glint sparkles in Kia’s eyes. She draws the knife and it makes that shhiiinnnggg sound they do in movies and the blade catches the orange glow from the rising sun, damn near blinding me. “Oh, fuck yeah,” Kia whispers.
I step back. “Careful now. Listen . . .”
She sheaths it up again and smiles up at me. “Go ’head.”
“You trying to really kill a ghost for good, you stab or slice at the head or torso. One or two good cuts and that’s it, the deal is done. Most the time. A particularly strong one might last longer. If you cut at the limbs you might incapacitate it but it won’t be gone.”
“How a ghost die though? They not dead already?”
“It’s called the Deeper Death. Means they’re really gone, like ether. Just gone.”
“Not cool.” I stern up my voice. “Be careful with this thing. Sometimes when folks are new to seeing spirits they just bug out and stab up any ol’ ghost wandering by. Never rush to the kill. Find out what’s going on. But stay ready. Shit gets hairy fast with the dead, even if most spirits aren’t gonna try to hurt you.”
“If they do,” she says, drawing the blade again, “they gonna taste Ethereal Juniper.”
I frown. “Ethereal Juniper though? Try harder.”
“You name yours?”
“No, Kia I’m an adult and I don’t live in Middle-earth. But do you.”
“You’re no fun.”
“Also: Imma have some of my folks keep an eye on you.”
She shakes her head and sheathes the blade for emphasis. “Hell no.”
“Kia, listen . . .”
“No. I listened. Now you listen: It’s not happening. I reject it. Do you understand me, Carlos? I did not invite this situation and I do not welcome this situation into my life. Yesterday, besides almost dying, I made an utter jackass out of myself in front of the one boy I ever had a crush on. I am sixteen. I got a job, a black eye and trigonometry homework, and plenty of other shit to worry about besides having your dead-ass friends following me around. Feel me?”
I swallow back a retort. She’s right again, but that doesn’t lessen the danger. I wonder if this is what parents feel like when their cute little kids turn into full-fledged autonomous things. “I do,” I finally say. “I do and I’m sorry. Part of this is my fault. I shouldn’t have hesitated. I fucked up and I’m sorry.” I shuffle back and forth on my feet and look out at the city. “Really sorry.”
“It’s alright,” she says, squinting at me. “Maybe it’s better anyway. Like you said—this way y’all can maybe figure out what’s going on. If you’da just cut the little fucker it’d be a done deal and we’d be stuck guessing.”
I brighten. “It’s true!”
“But the next time it’s between me and some demon child, stop overthinking shit and just do what you have to do.”
She shrugs and heads down the stairs.
The sun emerges from a hazy muddle of clouds; it throws the scattered shadows of circling pigeons across the rooftop.
“Ginga” copyright © 2015 by Daniel José Older
Art copyright © 2015 by Goñi Montes